Uncovering what once resided in the Missouri State Capitol dome.
Tucked away on the fifth floor of the Missouri State Capitol Building resides a piece of Missouri radio history. This small room is located just above the Missouri House floor and below the entrance to the well-known whispering gallery. Surprisingly, in this little room, our Capitol dome once housed its own radio studio.
In 1921, D.C. Rogers, then the assistant marketing commissioner of the state and federal boards of agriculture, sought to offer a radio service to provide agricultural marketing material and news for Missouri farmers. The station, named WOS, was created that fall and broadcast the next year, according to a University of Missouri graduate thesis by Frank Currier in 1968. The radio service bulletin issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce states that WOS was licensed February 23, 1922; Currier’s thesis says March 7 was the date of the first voice broadcast. The WOS call letters did not have any significance at the time, but they eventually came to signify “Watch Our State,” although that was never officially adopted.
Communicating agricultural news and markets was imperative in the 1920s, as Missouri was largely a farming state. Currier’s thesis pointed out that farmers frequently tuned in to listen to the news in their rural shops. He noted the daily 8 a.m. reports were said to be “almost an institution with [livestock] buyers who depended upon the information relayed to the station from Kansas City before dealing with brokers and sellers.”
Today, Missouri remains a farming state, with agriculture’s annual economic contribution at around $88 billion. The state is home to 95,000 farms covering two-thirds of the state’s total land acreage. It’s believed the radio antenna for WOS was mounted on Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, who still graces the Capitol dome today.
WOS programming included brief market and weather reports throughout the day, and they had a one-hour special radio program hosted by telephone three nights a week at 8 p.m. Monday evenings. It featured musical programming from inmates at the Missouri State Penitentiary who performed under the name Peaceful Village Band. The most famous of the performers was Harry Snodgrass, also known as “King of the Ivories,” named by one of the show’s announcers. The show was even popular nationwide and received listeners from Canada to Mexico. Missouri State Penitentiary warden Sam Hill eventually concluded that Snodgrass had been rehabilitated and recommended a sentence reduction. Governor Sam Baker agreed and reduced Snodgrass’ sentence in 1925.
When word got out Snodgrass would be released as a poor man, he received fan mail containing funds totaling more than $2,000 in a matter of weeks. More than 1,000 people attended his final performance as an inmate, and in 1926, Governor Baker granted Snodgrass a full pardon. One of the WOS announcers at the time ended up negotiating a vaudeville contract for Snodgrass and became his manager.
It’s believed the radio antenna for WOS was mounted on Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, who still graces the Capitol dome today.
In the late 1920s, the Federal Radio Commission strengthened radio regulations, as many stations were experiencing interference with others. On November 11, 1928, there was a reallocation of almost every station in the United States. WOS landed on 630 kHz, sharing time with the Stephens College station KFRU in Columbia.
By 1929, WOS was feeling the financial strain of the Great Depression. It tried several methods to generate enough funds to stay on the air — one solution, in 1932, was when airtime was sold to commercial partners. Station manager J. Pemberton Gordon sold one-hour blocks of music sponsored by Jefferson City businesses for $5 per hour. To help justify its existence, WOS began allowing the Missouri State Highway Patrol to use the station to communicate with patrol cars. WOS was turned over fully to the Highway Patrol June 26, 1933 — “for no apparent reason,” according to Currier’s thesis.
There is some speculation about a possible reason, however. Missouri’s political climate had been influenced by the Kansas City Democratic machine of T.J. Pendergast during this time. Earlier that month, an unnamed Republican gave a speech on WOS attacking Pendergast. Station manager J. Pemberton Gordon, listening from a country club, hadn’t seen the text of his speech prior to airing, which violated station policy. Gordon called WOS and ordered chief engineer Fred Wickam to “knock the station off the air.” Within minutes, the well-loved station had met its end.
On September 1, 1933, the Federal Radio Commission approved the transfer of control to the Highway Patrol. According to Currier, the final Highway Patrol broadcast occurred the last week of December 1935. The station is still remembered in the call letters of KWOS, which was built by the Jefferson City News Tribune in 1937. The small studio room still exists, now housing part of the HVAC system. Although the Missouri Capitol dome is known for whispering, the call of our state-owned station WOS was heard and remembered nationwide.